Friday, March 24

The Sum of Its Parts

Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. --James 3:1

We all search for meaning in some form or another; in our relationships, jobs, beliefs, even our eating habits, we want to feel like we are accomplishing something or contributing to the greater good. Something inside us is always aching to answer the quintessential "why." We want to know what it all means (whatever "it" actually is) and we want to know what it means to us personally. Sometimes there is a gap between true meaning and personal meaning.

True meaning is more of a definition. It is a truth that cannot change. An unchanging truth is sometimes referred to as a "given." High school geometry students know full well that in order to conduct a "proof" of a particular theorem, the first place to start is with a given. From that point forward, all of the other mathematical pieces required to arrive at a conclusion are drawn out step by step. No one ever attempts to prove a theorem without starting with a given. Not only would it be foolish to do so, the simple fact is that it cannot be done. Without combining the pieces in an ordered, logical way, they are nothing more than unconnected symbols and equations. They may have meaning unto themselves, but they do not lend much meaning to the original problem, nor are they an acceptable proof.

In the non-mathematical sense, some Christians attempt to find meaning in God's Word solely by looking at the parts and not the whole. There are a number of verses in the Bible that are oft recited or quoted out of context. Many Christians attach personal meaning to verses, by the "name it and claim it" ideology (i.e. the belief that God's specific promises apply to each of us in practically any situation). The recent successes of books like "The Prayer of Jabez" or "The Purpose Driven Life" are examples of the name it and claim it philosophy, and how strongly people are attracted to it.

The danger in attaching so much meaning to only one verse, one chapter or one particular promise lies in the fact that it makes it much easier for us to bypass the process of finding true meaning. In my opinion, true meaning is found in knowing God. We cannot fully know Him without understanding the context of His Word and what it meant to His people at specific times. The promises he made to certain generations may not be the same promises He has for us personally. Proper interpretation of scripture is critical, especially for those who go on to teach others and share God's word with them.

We have a word for the process of interpreting scripture--hermeneutics. According to one definition, hermeneutics is "the theoretical examination of the understanding and interpretations of texts. The apparent paradox in which we cannot understand the whole of a work without understanding its parts, but that the understanding of the parts presupposes some knowledge of the whole." It is a particular branch of theology that deals with interpreting scripture, understanding it in context, and then being able to apply it to the present.

Interpretation of God's Word is no easy thing. Those who interpret are also responsible for passing along what they have learned to others. The book of James says that those who are teachers will be judged more strictly. For this reason, I am hesitant to stray much beyond the anecdotal when I write about what God is doing in my life. However, there is one verse that has fundamental and personal meaning. I don't even need to interpret it because it is self-explanatory:

For God so loved the world
that he gave his one and only Son,
that whoever believes in him
shall not perish but have eternal life.
(John 3:16)

That verse is the whole, and the sum of its parts all at once. I stake my life on that, and my life has meaning because of it.

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